Health and Safety Resource

​December 2017

Oregon’s classic winter storms​

Winter storms in Oregon are most likely from December through February. Generally, western Oregon is spared the cold temperatures and snow that are common east of the Cascades, but not always. Under the right conditions, a winter storm can leave the entire state under a blanket of snow and ice. Here are 12 record-breaking events since 1900:

January 5-10, 1909

Many locations, particularly in western Oregon, received more snow in this six-day period than they normally received in an entire year.

January 11-15, 1916

Every reporting station in western Oregon, except for the southwestern interior and the coast recorded at least five inches of snow from this storm and many had eight or more.

December 9-11, 1919

One of the heaviest snowfall-producing storms to hit Oregon also brought the lowest statewide average temperature since recordkeeping began in 1890. The Columbia River froze over, closing the river to navigation from the Willamette River upstream; nearly every part of the state was affected.

February 10, 1933

Very cold temperatures spread across the state; the city of Seneca, in northeast Oregon, recorded the state’s all-time record low temperature of -54 degrees F; the next day the temperature was nearly 100 degrees warmer.

January 9-18, 1950

There were three storms, but very little time separated them; the net effect was one continuous storm. Deep snowdrifts closed highways west of the Cascades and throughout the Columbia Gorge. Severe sleet began on the 18th and later turned to freezing rain, which halted traffic for three days in the Columbia Gorge. Hundreds of motorists had to be rescued by train.

December 1964 - January 1965

Heavy snow, followed by persistent heavy rain, caused record flooding throughout the state and killed 17 people. Several observing stations across central Oregon recorded two-thirds of their normal annual rainfall in just 5 days. Scores of stations set new rainfall records for both 24 hours and the month of December. The Willamette River rose to 29.8 feet in downtown Portland, a record high for the winter.

January 25-31, 1969

For many locations in Oregon, this storm was the most extreme on record. Snow across the state was above normal, especially in Lane, Douglas, and Coos counties. Along the coast, January snowfall ranged from two to three feet.

February 1-8, 1989

Heavy snow fell across state, bringing record-low temperatures in many locations. Wind-chill temperatures ranged from 30 to 60 degrees below zero.

December 28, 2003 - January 9, 2004

The most significant winter storm in several years brought snowfall to most of Oregon. Parts of Interstate 5 shut down for nearly a day as ODOT maintenance crews and Oregon State Police dug stranded motorists out of five- to six-foot snowdrifts. Two feet of snow fell in the Blue Mountains in eastern Oregon. Roadside snow levels exceeded six feet along Oregon Route 204.

December 1-3, 2007

A hurricane force windstorm battered the coast of Oregon with gusts that were second only to that of the 1962 Columbus Day Storm; Bay City had a peak gust of 129 mph. The wind continued in excess of 50 mph for more than two days, closing all east-west roads through the Coast Range into the Willamette Valley.

January 17-18, 2012

This storm produced snowfall totals reaching up to 50 inches in some locations. A 110 mph wind gust was reported at Otter Rock. More than 12 Oregon highways were closed due to storm damage, and many more were partly closed.

January 7-12, 2017​

A series of storms brought record snowfall, ice, and freezing rain to much of the state. On Jan. 12, up to 15.5 inches of snow was reported in parts of Portland’s west hills, the city’s heaviest snowstorm since February 1995. Further south, up to an inch of ice was reported in Lane County. In Bend, the National Weather Service recorded 24 inches of snow on Jan. 12 at its reporting location near Pilot Butte.

Getting traction in winter​

If you do much winter driving in Oregon, you have probably seen the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) SNOW ZONE signs that tell you the current requirements for chains or traction tires. Do you know what they mean? Here’s a primer.

Snow zone. Carry chains or traction tires.
You must have chains or traction tires in or on your vehicle; they must be the right size for your vehicle and meet ODOT’s chain requirements.

Snow zone. Chains required on vehicles towing or single drive axle over 10,000 GVW.
You must use chains if your vehicle is towing or rated more than 10,000 pounds gross vehicle weight (GVW). Chains must also be used on a trailer or vehicle being towed.

Snow zone. Chains required on vehicles towing or over 10,000 GVW.
You must use chains if your vehicle is rated 10,000 pounds GVW or less and is towing. You must use chains on any single drive axle vehicle rated more than 10,000 pounds GVW whether towing or not. Chains must also be used on the trailer or vehicle being towed.

Snow zone. Chains required. Traction tires allowed on vehicles under 10,000 GVW.
You must use chains if your vehicle is towing or is rated more than 10,000 pounds GVW. Chains must also be used on a trailer or vehicle being towed. If your vehicle is rated 10,000 pounds GVW or less and is not towing, you must use chains or traction tires.

Drivers who disobey SNOW ZONE signs are subject to a class C traffic infraction.

A four-wheel or all-wheel drive passenger vehicle is exempt from ODOT’s chain requirements if all of the following are true:

  • It has an unloaded weight of 6,500 pounds or less.
  • It provides power to both the front and rear wheels.
  • It is carrying chains.
  • It has mud-and-snow, all-weather radial, or traction tires on all of its wheels.
  • It is not towing another vehicle.
  • It is not being operated in a manner or under conditions that cause the vehicle to lose traction.

Conditional closures. When travel on a state highway becomes especially hazardous, the Oregon Department of Transportation may impose a conditional road closure that applies to certain types of vehicles, or all vehicles, depending upon the conditions. Typically, ODOT or Oregon State Police will be on site to advise drivers about the closure.

So, what are traction tires anyway?

The Oregon Department of Transportation cryptically defines traction tires “as studded tires, retractable studded tires, or other tires that meet the tire industry definition as suitable for use in severe snow conditions.” Here is an explanation:

The tire industry standard for traction tires is the ASTM F1805 snow traction test, which measures tire performance on snow and ice. Tires that pass the test can display a Three-Peak Mountain Snow Flake. The characteristic feature of these tires is a tread design with bigger gaps than those on summer tires; the gaps allow snow to penetrate into the tread, where it compacts and provides resistance against slipping.

Studs are essentially hard steel pins enclosed in a softer base that wears faster than the pin. To be effective, the pin should protrude at least 1 millimeter (0.04 inches) above the surface of the tire. Studded tires are only legal for use in Oregon from Nov. 1 through Mar. 31.

You won’t find any retractable studded tires in Oregon. Nokian Tyres developed “the world's first non-studded winter tire with studs” to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the winter tire – but it’s just a concept now.